Dana Schechter interviewed about the debut Insect Ark album, "Portal/Well"
By Bob Gourley | Published on August 2, 2015
Known for her work with bands such as Bee and Flower and Michael Gira‘s Angels Of Light, artist/multi-instrumentalist Dana Schechter has now unleashed “Portal/Well,” the debut album from her solo project Insect Ark. Schechter composes primarily on lap steel and bass guitar, with heavy effects and expertly crafted layers of percussion, synths and noise, giving Insect Ark an otherworldly, highly cinematic sound. Slow-building and extremely dark, the music has a very experimental feel to it, but the minimalist arrangements and strong focus keep it highly accessible. “Portal/Well” feels like it would work well as a soundtrack, either to a film or a very strange dream.
Ashley Spungin has now joined the band on drums and electronics, allowing Insect Ark to have a bigger and more energetic live sound. The group has performances scheduled for the summer and fall. In an email interview, Schechter discussed “Portal/Well,” the evolution of Insect Ark, and more.
You’re previously put out an Insect Ark single and EP. Had anything changed in your overall approach when you started working on the “Portal/Well” album? Perhaps due to taking a step back after initial releases, or possibly based on fan/audience feedback?
Taking the time to do a full record was in itself a whole different game. It’s a bigger commitment, and allows for wider palette of material. Generally speaking, there’s been a development in approach over time; I guess that’s pretty common. Things naturally change shape, but you don’t necessarily witness the shift yourself, it’s working on its own under the surface. That’s particularly true in terms of writing music. Technically, my lap steel playing has improved since the first releases; when I did the first single I’d only been playing for around 5 or 6 months. Being a better steel player gave me more dynamic range.
Was “Portal/Well” created in a focused block of time, or were you also working on other things concurrently?
It was written and recorded over a year’s time; we (me and mixing engineer Ethan Donaldson) were already mixing some songs, while I was finishing writing other songs, so it was ongoing. I’m always working on a lot of things – visuals, other projects etc, but writing the album did dominate my creative output in that time frame.
Overall mood and atmosphere seems as big a part of your music as the melodic and rhythmic elements. Could you discuss the interplay of these various components when you create music?
I see these as one and the same as far as what’s important, but yes, setting a mood definitely is a goal. I like things when they breathe, but I also like them to be driving and angular. I play around with ideas, for example, offsetting a faster riff by putting a slower melody underneath it. Writing on bass vs. the lap steel also makes my brain build shapes and chords in a different way, and vice-versa. Any element can be drastically altered by what you pair it with. I’ll experiment by adding or removing elements, changing a melody, moving the tempo, and so on.
How did Ashley Spungin come to be involved with Insect Ark, and how has her presence impacted the project? Do you think she will participate in the creation of future music, or be strictly a live member?
Ash joined after I’d asked her to play drums for a couple live shows earlier in 2015. We both enjoyed that, and since then have toured and been working on new music together. We’ve recorded two songs, one of which (“Windless”) was released in June on a limited lathe 7″ for Utech Records. Having her on drums – and electronics – has definitely added a huge amount of energy to the live shows, and it’s changed the writing too, in that I bounce ideas off her when I have new music, and this can take it in quite another direction than I’d imagined. She comes up with great drum parts, and as much as I liked creating the programmed drums, it’s much better with her involvement.
Insect Ark is a very interesting name; how did you come up with it? Is the “Insect” part meant to be a connection to Bee & Flower?
Hah, no connection to that! I do love bugs though. I don’t know how I came up with it really. The name to me feels like an electrical hive of sorts.
Are you thinking about live performance when you compose, or do you take full advantage of the studio and worry about that later? Have any particular tracks proved challenging to bring to the live setting, perhaps requiring re-interpretation?
On Portal/Well, the writing did change with a mind towards being able to perform the songs live with no backing tracks, but still retain as many of the ‘important’ elements as possible. When performing alone, I would lean towards songs that work solo; with Ashley on drums, that changes things up a good amount. When writing, if a song felt that it needed to be complex, then I let it be and wouldn’t worry about playing it live. I think it’s healthy to not be shackled to the idea that songs need to be performed exactly like they are on a record. If it can be re-interpreted for live, great; if not, it stays an album track. There are several songs on Portal/Well that we won’t be able to play live unless there is a third musician. As much as I’ve tried, I can’t play bass and lap steel and keyboards at the exact same time. I do switch back and forth mid-song a lot, and build a ton of live loops, but that still has limitations.
The music sounds like it would lend itself to at least some improvisation when performed live; is this the case?
Definitely – there’s a lot of room to stretch and distort, I think this is very important, to not be locked into structures. That can get dull for musicians and audiences alike. We always do at least one short piece that is fully improv, usually based around synths and noise.
Could you talk about the equipment you use, both in both recording and performing as Insect Ark?
I use a lap steel guitar, a bass guitar, a small synth, a bass amp, and a bunch of pedals. I use Ableton Live for a fair amount of my live looping (in lieu of having a bunch of loop pedals), and some midi controllers. The setup for recording is much the same but includes some other stuff, mic preamps, mics, etc. Ash uses a drumkit and has been building analog sound/noise pedals, which are totally cool and really dynamic in what they can do. She also has a pedal board with some delays and other stuff.
Was incorporating vocals into Insect Ark ever considered?
The first 7″ from 2012, “Collapsar”, had vocals on the B side, “Piledriver”. I decided after that to stop. I wanted to leave my own imprint off it somehow, and let the sound itself support any story a listener might imagine. Plus, it’s really demanding to play bass, lap steel, synth, run the controllers etc.; my hands are already quite full. Vocals can be hard to do well in a live setting, and I found that I was able to stay more focused on the sonics of it all more easily if I wasn’t singing. However, one never knows, we might incorporate vocals again at some point.
Being a visual artist as well, do you find yourself having imagery in your mind as you compose songs?
I do on occasion. Sound and visuals as mediums are so intertwined in me that it’s hard to untangle. Sometimes the music gives me visual ideas, but sometimes it’s the other way around. Sound has color and movement and visuals have tangible shape and set moods.
I’ve read on your site that you’re working on a video for “The Collector” – how is that going?
It’s going great – it should be done in a week or two. It was a great experience working with everyone. Mandy Caughey (dance) was a real pleasure, totally wacky and pro and fun. Alan Dubin (from Gnaw/Khanate) is editing and he co-produced the shoot, and his contribution has been massive. I did all the animation which was projected behind Mandy as she danced in front of the screen, and we also filmed Mandy on a greenscreen so she could be placed “inside” some of the animations as well. Shlomo Godder was the Director of Photography and captured it all beautifully.
Do you use projections or other visual elements in your live performances?
We’ve had live projections a few times, but not consistently, just using odd films and whatnot, but it has been a goal for quite a while to have a fully animated projection for the shows. I’m currently in the design, testing and development stages of a series called Through the Animal Eye, to be projected during our shows, which I would shoot, animate and edit. It’s been difficult to find the time to complete it, as I’ve been really busy with touring; when home, I work as a freelance animator for film and television. It will happen, I just am not certain when.
What initially motivated you to start up Insect Ark? Are there any particular ways that your work with Angels of Light or Bee & Flower influenced it, in terms of either ideas you wanted to pursue further, or things you wanted specifically to do differently?
I started Insect Ark because Bee and Flower wasn’t really active (see next question), and the idea of working alone was very appealing, logistically speaking. I’d also been itching to do something less song-oriented, and more aggressive / experimental. I come from a metal background and my love for sonically dense and heavy music has never left me. I’ve played in a lot of (other people’s) bands, mostly as a bassist, and those experiences were really valuable to my development as a musician and writer. Seeing how other people create is always inspiring. As a writer, it also allowed me to consider my own music objectively, since there are a multitude of ways to develop any piece of music.
Does Bee and Flower still exist, or is Insect Ark now your primary musical project?
Bee and Flower exists, but it’s tough since the band members are split between NYC and Berlin. Insect Ark keeps me very busy so yes, it is my main project now. Bee and Flower is still important to me though, and we’re starting to work on on new material now. There’s also been some activity on the releases front; our first album “What’s Mine is Yours” (2003, Neurot Recordings) was just reissued as a 2X vinyl at 45rpm on Tennessee label Inherent Records. We released “Suspension” in 2012 on a Belgian label called Cheap Satanism and “Last Sight of Land” on a German label called Tuition. Unfortunately, neither of those albums were released in the US.
What’s in the immediate future for you?
Ash & I are touring on the West Coast supporting Locrian this August, for ten shows. We’ll be working on new material after that, and touring Europe in November. The goal is to have at least an EP together by the end of the year. She doesn’t live in NYC, so the distance make progress a challenge at times, but we’ll keep on it, neither of us want to lose the momentum.
For more info, visit insectark.com.